Is the Psalmist a Protestant?

September 19, 2015

Berkouwer - Faith and Sanctification

I have been re-reading portions of Berkouwer’s Faith and Sanctification, a volume from his dogmatics series. It is superb and easily among my favorite volumes, from the five or six that I have read or consulted. As I wrote a few years ago, “Berkouwer is such a well-balanced theologian that it’s hard to ever find anything to dispute.”

A particularly helpful discussion is about the Psalms, namely those Psalms with a certain “sense of self-esteem” and “in terms almost indistinguishable from those used by the Pharisees” (p. 125). You know them. And hopefully you have been perplexed as well. Berkouwer highlights Psalm 26:

Judge me, O Jehovah, for I have walked in mine integrity…I have walked in thy truth. I have not sat with men of falsehood; neither will I go in with dissemblers. I hate the assembly of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. I will wash my hands in innocency.

Yeah, me! Hurray for me! Is that what the Psalmist is doing? Berkouwer repeats the problem, “Is there not a striking similarity here with the words used by the Pharisee in the parable?”

To the Protestant, nothing is more abhorrent than being a Pharisee. In fact, we are at our most Pharisaical when we are being anti-Pharisaical. The most judgmental people I know are the most anti-Pharisaical — always keen to spot the judgmental “splinter” in another’s eye. But that’s another topic for another day. What to do with this Psalm and others like it? Here is Berkouwer’s response:

Let no one jump to conclusions. There is in this psalm a definite center to which all these utterances are related. The poet trusts in the Lord, whose lovingkindness is before his eyes. In God’s truth he has walked. He compasses the altar of Jehovah and loves the habitation of Jehovah’s house. He makes the voice of thanksgiving to be heard and tells of all God’s wondrous works. And finally: In the congregation will I bless Jehovah.

Each of these statements undercuts Pharisaism. The expression of joy over the mercy of God and distinguishing self from others are naturally related; they find their point of convergence on the altar of reconciliation.

[Faith and Sanctification, p. 125]

Berkouwer then summarizes Eduard Köning’s objection as: “People who talk like the psalmist are the healthy people who need no physician.” Berkouwer then continues with his response:

In this manner an injustice is done to what Psalm 26 says about the mercy of God, about his altar and habitation. The whole is a song of praise. It is possible, of course, for a Pharisee to absorb the mercy of God and the altar into his own nomistic scheme; but it is also possible that in the psalms the voice of a believer speaks of the righteousness which is not subversive of the grace of God. …

Whoever gives an abstract moral interpretation to these Old-Testament expressions of righteousness is bound to distort the Scriptures. He would make of Israel’s religion and the Covenant of Grace a purely nomistic salvation. The holiness of the righteous could then be only an ethical ideal and the mercy of God becomes irrelevant.

[p. 126]

I love that. Earlier in this chapter, Berkouwer criticizes some of Barth’s comments about sanctification in his early writings, being (as Barth was) under the sway of a too strict dichotomy between the eternal and temporal wherein the dichotomy as such holds interpretive sway. I wholly agree with this criticism, and I’m pretty sure that Barth would too. That is also another discussion for another time. Berkouwer closes this chapter with an approving reference to Barth — “Never, according to Barth, can the believer claim his good works as his own possession and contrast them with the non-possession of another man” (Römerbrief, 204) — and then a quote from Calvin:

We are not our own; therefore let us, as far as possible, forget ourselves and all things that are ours. On the contrary, we are God’s; to him, therefore, let us live and die. We are God’s; therefore let his wisdom and will preside in all our actions. We are God’s; towards him, therefore, as our only legitimate end, let every part of our lives be directed. O, how great a proficiency has that man made, who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken the sovereignty and government of himself from his own reason, to surrender it to God!

[Institutes, III.6.1; Berkouwer, ibid., p. 130]

Amen.

God’s Humility

September 11, 2014

If you were to ask Christians to list the attributes of God, I do not think that humility would rank very high. It would probably barely even register. Humility is what we do, not God. Glory and Power and Might, yes. Humility, not so much. Even when we think of Love and Mercy, we do not often define these in terms of God’s humility from eternity.

These are not mutually exclusive — the attributes of freedom and the attributes of love. God can hold together contraries in his being, which we separate and pervert in our being. But it is impossible for us to know this, without God first enacting this possibility in Jesus Christ. And if we look to Jesus Christ as where the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col 2:9), then humility defines God in his essence.

I just started reading Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s journals. He mentions God’s humility in one of his entries (below), which I found helpful. When we try to find humility within ourselves, it is when pride manifests itself sub contrario — as we are all too aware, if we’re honest. Instead, we have to look toward God’s humility and find our place within His life:

Essentially, all sins come from two sources: flesh and pride. But pride is more frightening (after all, it ruined the angelic powers). Christians have focused their attention, their religious “passion,” on flesh, but how easy it is to succumb to pride. Spiritual pride (truth, spirituality, maximalism) is the most frightful of all. The difficulty of the fight against pride lies in the fact that pride, unlike the flesh, appears in so many different forms and most easily appropriates that of the angel of light. In humility, people gain the knowledge of their unworthiness and defects, yet humility is the most divine of all possible qualities. We become humble, not because we see ourselves (one way or another, that always leads to pride because false humility is just another aspect of pride, perhaps the most difficult to conquer), but only if we see God and His humility.

Wednesday, February 28, 1973

[The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p. 4]

charles_spurgeon

Here is Charles Spurgeon preaching on “the trial of faith”:

…who am I, and who are you, that God should pamper us? Would we have him put us in a glass case and shield us from the trials which are common to all the chosen seed? I ask no such portion. Let me fare as the saints fare. I only wish to have their bread and their water, and love their Father, and follow their Guide, and find their home. We will take our meals with them, whatever God puts upon the table for them, will we not? The trial of our faith will be all our own, and yet it will be in fellowship with all the family of grace.

It will be no child’s play to come under the divine tests. Our faith is not merely jingled on the counter like the shilling which the tradesman suspects, but it is tried with fire; for so it is written, “I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction” (Isa 48:10). The blows of the flail of tribulation are not given in sport, but in awful earnest, as some of us know who have been chastened sore, almost unto death. The Lord tries the very life of our faith; not its beauty and its strength alone, but its very existence. The iron enters into the soul; the sharp medicine searches the inmost parts of the belly; the man’s real self is made to endure the trial. It is easy to talk of being tried, but it is by no means so simple a matter to endure the ordeal.

…”Oh,” you have said, “I wish I had more faith.” Your prayer will be heard through your having more trial. Often in our prayers we have sought for a stronger faith to look within the veil. The way to stronger faith usually lies along the rough pathway of sorrow. Only as faith is contested will faith be confirmed. I do not know whether my experience is that of all God’s people; but I am afraid that all the grace that I have got out of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable. What do I not owe to the hammer and the anvil, the fire and the file? What do I not owe to the crucible and the furnace, the bellows that have blown up the coals, and the hand which has thrust me into the heat? Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library. We may wisely rejoice in tribulation, because it worketh patience, and patience experience, and experience hope; and by that way are exceedingly enriched, and our faith grows strong.

…when affliction comes into the soul, and makes a disturbance and breaks our peace, up rise our graces. Faith comes out of its hiding, and love leaps from its secret place.

[“The Trial of Your Faith,” in 12 Sermons for the Troubled and Tried, Baker Book House, 1975, pp. 12-13]

I love that last line: “Faith comes out of its hiding, and love leaps from its secret place.”

Karl-Barth

This is from the frequently fascinating and humorous Karl Barth’s Table Talk, recorded and edited by John D. Godsey:

Student: Because of your desire to avoid any dualism between God and His adversaries (Satan and his angels, principalities and powers), it seems to me that you have left no room in your Doctrine of Reconciliation for what appears to be a genuine biblical element in the work of Christ, namely, His triumph over these adversaries as Christus Victor. Is this criticism valid?

Barth: I do not think it is a valid criticism. This sort of question can only be asked by those who cannot see the wood for the trees. If you consider the whole of the Church Dogmatics, including all that is said regarding sin and Satan, how could I give a stronger statement regarding Christus Victor? I am often criticized about this. Berkouwer, in his survey of my theology in his book, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, complains of too much triumph in the Church Dogmatics because I treat demons, sin, the Nothingness, and so forth, too lightly. Now you say there is not enough room for the triumph — just the opposite! How can we make clear the victory of Christ? In this way: when speaking of sin, demons, darkness, by not speaking of them in too tragic a manner — like the German theologians, all so serious! The further north you go in Germany, the more they are concerned with the realm of darkness. And if you move to the Scandinavian countries, all is darkness: God against Satan, and vice versa! Gustaf Wingren is proud to be a ‘serious’ theologian, because he takes Satan seriously. I understand. But because there must be room for the victory of Christ, you cannot be so anxious and pitiful and sad. Go on, explain the Work and Word of Christ, and you are above! We cannot deny the reality of evil and the Nothingness, but in and with Christ we are above these mysteries. It is not wise to be too serious. We must be serious, of course; life is hard. But we are not to take Satan as a reality in the same sense that Jesus is real.

[pp. 16-17]

Barth organized a regular series of seminars for English-speaking students in Basel during the 1950’s. The questions are rather wide-ranging, from basic questions about the “architecture” (not his favorite term) of his dogmatics to doctrinal particulars and even social-political questions.

I wrote these reflections for members of my church. Now I offer them here:

Greetings Westminster friends,

I’m sending this as a feeble attempt to offer some reflections on the Newtown tragedy. I trust many of your hearts have been overwhelmed with emotion — sadness, anger, tears. I was reminded of the French mystic and philosopher, Simone Weil. Here is an account from a classmate of hers at the Sorbonne (early 1930’s):

She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence. [But more so…] A great famine had broken out in China, and I was told that when she heard the news she had wept: these tears compelled my respect much more than her gifts as a philosopher. I envied her having a heart that could beat right across the world.

A heart that could beat right across the world! That was Weil’s greatest gift, and it deepened as she discovered the love of Christ for the first time, while observing the destitute peasants in a small Portuguese village. She saw that Christianity was not for the strong but for the weak, and she among them. This discovery of dispossession invariably compels us to our knees, where the strange love of God takes the form of a Cross. With that in mind, I offer these thoughts that I wrote this morning:

Prayers are ascending from Newtown. And with the prayers are the questions, the uncertainties, the perplexities, the anxieties — in short, the vulnerabilities of naked and weak beloved of the Father who have been cast to and fro by the brute force of an evil that speaks the tempting word of despair. The killer drank this despair — it became a part of his descent into the nothingness, the void, into which he attempted to bring twenty defenseless children with him. This is the despair in which we have forsaken the love of the Father — a forsakenness that the Son bore on the Cross as a final demonstration that we, in turn, have not been forsaken by the Father. I say that the killer “attempted” to bring his victims into this nothingness — a nothingness where the love of God is not heard and not received with joy and thanksgiving. It is only an attempt, for we have heard, we have received — thus, our prayers are the definitive protest against this attempt and all such attempts. We know the void has been overcome, filled with love. Death is not subject to the whims of absurdity, of this wickedness; it is defeated. The Cross falsifies the tempting word of despair — as death is illumined by the Resurrection light. We approach this mystery with no confidence in ourselves. This Word of love is not something we can speak to ourselves — the death of these children is too real, too painful for such human conjuring. It is spoken to us, from the Cross, entering our drama, our crosses, as a certain hope of new creation. In this way, beyond our grasping, the love of God is found even here, in Newtown, perhaps more than anywhere else right now. These children belonged to God. He won them on the Cross. They belong to him now, and He is now delighting in them, in their play, in their joy.

Blessings,
Kevin

Goodbye, Original Sin

June 4, 2012

SBC

A group of self-styled “traditional” Southern Baptists have issued a statement articulating their view of salvation (the “traditional” view) in contrast to the Calvinism of Southern Seminary faculty and other Calvinists in the SBC. I have my own specific set of complaints against the “new Calvinism” of Piper, Mohler, and the ever-recurring same group of people at half a dozen conferences each year. However, their classical Reformed doctrine of election is not really one of my concerns, despite significant modifications I would make. I actually agree with Mohler that Reformed theology in the SBC is nearly the only place that young evangelicals can go (in the SBC) to find depth and substance. A good example, proving Mohler correct, is this recent statement by Southern Baptist “traditionalists.” Roger Olson has rightly pinpointed this curiosity, in Article 2:

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.

Free will remains intact after the Fall? We are born without guilt? The specter of Pelagius is near. This is well-beyond anything an Arminian would say, and it demonstrates a sloppy theology that is far too common in “traditional” Baptist circles. There is nothing traditional about this, at least not for those who have broadly followed in the Augustine heritage (including Arminians). On the first point, if a person’s free will is not incapacitated, then how is it that “every person who is capable of moral action will sin,” as the previous paragraph states? If we are bound to sin, then we are not really free. On the second point, if we are not born guilty, it follows that infants (or the severely mentally handicap) do not need Christ’s atonement. If we are only guilty when we have “personally sinned,” then only at that point are we in need of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. To be clear, I do not think infants (or the mentally handicapped) are damned. I think they are saved, or at least I have good reasons to hope that they are saved, but they are saved by the atoning work of Christ because they (along with all humans) are born sinners and in need of salvation. The logic of this “traditionalist” statement is that some people are innocent and are, thereby, without any need of the Cross.

Olson is right: “For a long time I’ve been stating that most American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist.”

Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

If you want to witness the gross abuse of the term, “inclusivism,” in the hands of a conservative evangelical blogger, then read this post from Trevin Wax of Kingdom People, a blog with a fairly sizable readership.

Does the following sound accurate?

An increasing number of evangelicals find the “inclusivist” view of salvation appealing. This view maintains the traditional Christian belief that “Jesus is the only way to God” while denying the necessity of placing personal conscious faith in Christ for salvation. In other words, there is the possibility that other religious paths lead ultimately to God through Christ, even if the adherents never profess faith in Christ.

What? “Other religious paths”? So, according to Trevin, an inclusivist believes that a Buddhist by way of his Buddhism may be saved, or a Muslim by way of his Islam may be saved, or a Hindu by way of his Hinduism may be saved. Is this actually what inclusivists are saying? Would most inclusivists articulate it this way? Of course not, but a nuanced and responsible articulation of the inclusivist position is not nearly as effective.

An evangelical inclusivist is more likely to say that the Hinduism (etc.), as with the Law, is often an indolatrous hindrance to be overcome by God’s electing grace. Such a grace can convert and bring repentance, relinquishing the dependence on oneself and the idols that serve man’s pride instead of love. Such a grace can bring light to the understanding, the light that Noah and Job received apart from the Temple and apart from the knowledge of Christ. Yet, this light is Christ: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. …The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1: 4, 9). That is where the inclusivist begins: with Christ and with grace.

As a side note, if a “personal conscious faith in Christ” is such an absolute condition for salvation, then how is the infant saved or the severely mentally handicapped saved? Even though he rightly believes in original sin (i.e., we are sinners before we actually sin), the exclusivist recognizes that such indomitable barriers, for receiving Christ with “personal conscious faith,” do not limit God’s grace from reaching the infant or handicapped. If the exclusivist is willing to admit such non-normative means for salvation, then the inclusivist position is hardly much of a stretch.

From John Oman’s beautiful book, Grace and Personality (3rd ed., Cambridge U. P., 1925):

A conscience merely morally determined only lays down rules, and is too easily satisfied if they are not obviously broken. But the supreme test is not to be conscientious up to the measure of rules of universal application. It is to be continually in search of a more penetrating discernment. As we for ever hunger and thirst after righteousness, and not as we obey a code of accepted moral imperatives, are we truly conscientious.

A quiet sense of possession, with an ever increasing endeavour after an ever enlarging purpose, which gives freedom from every standard of anxious merit, every right moral judgment of life demands, but no rules of a merely moral judgment of life can supply. A measured moral imperative must be changed into the measurelessness of an infinite religious aspiration and assurance, into a hungering and thirsting after righteousness which has its only measure in the infinite love of God, before we can have both ceaseless aspiration and lasting peace.

The practical effect is mercifulness in our judgment of others, whereby our eyes are purified for seeing God.

(pp. 102-104)

Eve_detail by Claudia Kunin

I’m reading through Genesis again, and I was struck anew by chapter 3, in particular, by the role of aesthetics in verses six and seven.

[6] When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. [7] Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

The forbidden tree, though forbidden, was still a part of God’s creation and thus “good.” As good, it shares in the aesthetics of God’s order and creativity. Eve rightly perceives the form of beauty given to the fruit (“pleasing to the eye”) and its benefit for sustenance (“good for food”). These two qualities are listed with the third quality given by the serpent: “desirable for gaining wisdom.” It is this third quality that exegetes and preachers typically emphasize, since it most clearly exhibits the motive behind Eve and Adam’s act of idolatry and subsequent Hebrew (and Gentile!) idolatry.

The significance of this tree is that it is not given by God for Eve and Adam’s benefit, while the rest of the garden was given for their benefit and, ultimately, for communion with Himself. The health and beauty that the couple enjoyed was supplied by God’s creation, and the pleasures of body and mind allowed for peaceful communion with each other and with God. Likewise, the innocence of their understanding was supplied by God and protected through ignorance of pride, sin, and evil. It is only with severance from God in an attempt at self-providence that evil and strife are known. Thus, by taking the fruit, Eve moves beyond the limits graciously given by God with an impossible attempt to “be like God” (v. 5).

That is the “wisdom” that was desired by Eve, though it is revealed as foolishness. However, its foolishness is masked by the aesthetic and beneficent justifications given. Every sin is justified by its beauty and its service to some supposed need. Examples are innumerable: the “healthy” sex life, the “culture” of learned society, the “expressions of authenticity” through fashion, et cetera, and the gratuitous acquisition of these goods. Their beauty is praised and their benefit endlessly proffered. Yet, it is not their beauty or benefit that is nefarious; indeed, they are beautiful and beneficial. The evil is present when their value is rendered as a service to the autonomy of the individual. When their benefit is praised because it serves the independence and self-sufficiency of the person, there is sin. When their benefit is praised because it facilitates communion with God and total dependence upon God, there is righteousness.

Once the fruit is taken in verse six, this evil potential for created beauty is the consideration of the very next verse. Eve and Adam immediately cover themselves. Their bodies, beautiful and good, are now subject to idolatry by the other person. This beauty is now necessarily masked in order to prevent its misuse in sin.  As such, the Christian stands in a tense relationship with the beauty of the world. Our depravity prevents us from receiving the world’s beauty without great temptation. Thus, we require a great diligence against using this beauty as a means for self-autonomy.